07 Martina Filjak LisztLight & Darkness – Works by Franz Liszt
Martina Filjak
Profil Edition Hanssler PH18074 (smarturl.it/light-darkness)

It isn’t often that you come across a recording so good that you not only want to recommend it to everyone but also gift copies to everyone you meet. The Croatian pianist Martina Filjak’s Light & Darkness – Works by Franz Liszt is one of these discs. Not only does her performance rise to the demanding level of Liszt’s pianism, but in the programming of the repertoire you will find a challenging attempt to paint a vivid picture of Liszt’s multifaceted character and personality at the heart of which was an unbridled virtuoso genius. Liszt’s attraction to Palestrina and early polyphony, and the extraordinary opulence of Ottoman Empire culture is well-documented here as is his attraction to spirituality and asceticism later in life.

To remain true to all of the above and interpret the often diabolical intricacies of Liszt’s music requires uncommon virtuosity and wisdom. Filjak has both qualities in spades. The young pianist has the technical prowess to deal with Liszt’s pyrotechnics and yet knows how to enter the introspective core of Miserere d’après Palestrina – one of a set of ten works based on the poems of Alphonse de Lamartine – and the Ballade No.2 in B Minor. Her revelation of the mesmerizing range of tones of Deux Légendes is brilliant. Filjak emerges as a complete Lisztian, turning what in other hands sounds merely exhibitionistic into a discursive stream of consciousness of the highest order.

08 Rimsky KorsakovRimsky-Korsakov – Capriccio Espagnol; Russian Easter Festival Overture; Scheherazade
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra; Vasily Petrenko
LAWO LWC1198 (naxosdirect.com)

Some years ago, the owner of a new record company asked an experienced A&R man, “How do you know what to make?” The answer? “Look for the composition that has the most recordings and make one more.” It seems that advice is still being heeded, not only in repertoire but also with conductors.

Three so often recorded staples are given new life in these performances directed by Vasily Petrenko who is not to be confused with the Petrenko in Berlin, Kirill. Vasily has been conductor of the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra since 2009 and conducts and records with other orchestras earning enthusiastic reviews. He now has 52 CDs out there, including 16 devoted to Shostakovich.  

The immediate exuberance of the Alborada opening of Capriccio Espagnol is a real attention-getter and sets the level of enthusiasm expected from the orchestra throughout the program. The Russian Easter Festival moves from Saturday’s religious zeal to Easter Sunday’s celebrations. I certainly did not expect to linger on any passages in Scheherazade and yet listening to this familiar favourite afresh was an unexpected pleasure. This finely detailed performance demonstrates why Rimsky-Korsakov was regarded by his peers as Russia’s supreme orchestrator.

As to be expected, the sound is state of the art.

09 Mahler 2 DudamelMahler – Symphony No.2 “Resurrection”
Chen Reiss; Tamara Mumford; Münchner Philharmoniker; Gustavo Dudamel
Unitel Edition 802808 (naxosdirect.com)

Filmed in Barcelona’s incredibly ornate Palau de la Música Catalana, this DVD commemorates a singular performance of Mahler’s “Resurrection” Symphony presented on June 27, 2019. Mahler envisioned this massive work as a sequel to his first symphony, though it took an unusually long time by his standards to complete. It opens with an epic funeral march, originally a freestanding tone poem titled Totenfeier (Funeral Rites) from 1888. Following a pause (Mahler stipulated a seldom observed five full minutes), the lighter second and third movements provide a striking contrast to the extreme tension of what has gone before; the second is a genial, folksy Ländler while the third is a darkly ironic Scherzo. Dudamel’s direction here is stylish, supple and very Viennese. Things take a truly cosmic turn in the finale of the work (conceived in 1894) with the appearance of mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford introducing her emotive Ulricht vocal solo, setting the stage for a truly cataclysmic conclusion which storms the gates of heaven itself in a riveting performance featuring the multiple choirs (situated some three stories above the orchestra on either side of a sadly non-functioning organ), thunderous brass passages both on stage and off and the soaring exhortations of soprano Chen Reiss, all united in a thrilling promise of a life beyond death. 

The crack video team employs a phalanx of six cameras, with many shots resorting to extreme close-ups, as the stage is crammed with over 100 musicians and an audience of some 2,000 rapt souls in attendance. The sound is quite vibrant owing to the many ceramic and glass surfaces of the venue. The Munich Philharmonic plays tremendously well and, most impressively, Dudamel conducts the entire 90-minute performance from memory! It’s quite the occasion, and a celebration that we shall not likely see again for quite some time.

10 SOLERIANASoleriana – Joaquín Rodrigo Chamber Orchestra Works
Orquesta de la Comunidad Valenciana; Joan Enric Lluna
IBS Classical IBS-82020 (ibsclassical.es)

Joaquín Rodrigo (1901-1999) was without question one of Spain’s most prolific 20th-century composers, and rather ironically, aside from his international hit Concierto de Aranjuez, much of his work, including a dozen other concertos and over 170 additional compositions, remains largely unknown. The title of the CD is Soleriana – not only the title of the first work represented, but also a noun of gravitas profundo, one used frequently by Rodrigo to describe “purity of the Spanish cultural heritage, undiluted by European influence.” Although Rodrigo was closely identified with European neo-classicism of the 1930s, he imbued his works with many indigenous elements of traditional Spanish forms, particularly dances. This recording presents works composed between 1926 and 1953, and is performed by the noted Orquesta de la Comunidad Valenciana, under the skilled baton of Joan Enric Lluna, The exquisite recorded performance took place in front of an enraptured audience at the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia. 

The title work is comprised of Entrada, where tender bassoons and oboes are joined by complex Baroque patterns utilizing all the colours of the ensemble; the regal, stirring Fandango; Tourbillon with its superb use of vigorous, passion-filled and insistent cellos and basses; and Pastoral, which is almost spiritual in its musical purity. Imagery of stunning, natural sites is embedded in the music, and the final movement, Passepied features delicious entanglements of strings and woodwinds.

Two additional pieces are both breathtakingly beautiful celebrations of musical dance motifs and structure: Tres Viejos Aires de Danza and the closing, Zarabanda Lejana y Villancico. This fresh, invigorating and masterfully performed project is both an acknowledgment of an overlooked artist and a marvelous celebration of Spanish culture.

11 Satie VexedErik Satie – Vexations
Noriko Ogawa (1890 Érard Piano)
Bis BIS-2325 (naxosdirect.com)

Erik Satie – a true forerunner of the Impressionist school or an accomplished but eccentric dilettante? Nearly 100 years after his death, the composer from Normandy – bearded and bespectacled – continues to be a source of controversy. His music always demonstrated a particular diversity of styles, all of which reveal a strikingly original musical personality – and this BIS recording of Vexations performed by pianist Noriko Ogawa on an 1890 Érard instrument, is yet another example of his eclecticism.

The set reputedly dates from the early 1890s. Typically, Satie provided no information about it, the only source being a scribbled single-page manuscript discovered after his death. From the outset, it’s clearly evident that this is music like no other. The score begins with a single-line 18-note theme which is then repeated, this time used as a bass line for two voices above it moving in tritone harmony. Following a repeat of the single-line theme, the harmonization is then inverted. According to Satie’s instructions, the sequence is to be repeated 840 times! Nevertheless, Ogawa has opted for a more manageable repetition of a mere 142, bringing the length of the performance to a practical 80 minutes. She successfully varies her interpretation through shifts in dynamics and articulation, and in all, delivers a poised and sensitive performance. The result is music which is haunting, unsettling and after a while, possibly even hypnotic.

So, is the final result mesmerizing or futile? Indeed, that would be up to the listener to decide. If you’re seeking something light and melodic to relax to on a summer’s evening, this isn’t it. On the other hand, the ambience created is perfect for quiet reflection or meditation – all we need are the candles and incense!

12 Caroline LeonardelliSerenata
Caroline Léonardelli
CEN Classics CEN1022 (carolineleonardelli.com)

Canadian JUNO-nominated classical concert harpist Caroline Léonardelli describes her third recording as a “homage to her Italian heritage.” Her detailed, conscientious research culminates in this all-solo, Italian-based harp-repertoire release featuring composers from the 19th and early 20th centuries, a time when the modern version of the concert harp was being introduced. The compositions touch on such influences as fantasies, studies, suites, classical, opera arias and folk/popular music. Léonardelli performs them all with subtlety, virtuosity and incredible dedication.

Title track Serenata Op.51 No.6 (1910) by Alessandro Longo is an uplifting classical harp work with contrasting high notes and lower pitched lines, glissandos and slight rubatos at the ends of phrases. Luigi Tedeschi’s slower Etude Impromptu Op.37 (1906) is stylistically more Romantic with high clear pitches and sensitive melodic movement. Giovanni Caramiello bases his Rimembranza di Napoli Op.6 (1877) on two Neapolitan folk songs. The detached effect going into the infamous song Santa Lucia, with its high-pitched ringing middle song section, will make one want to listen to the harp instead of trying to sing along! Two Gaetano Donizetti opera arias are featured, one arranged by Albert Zabel and the other by John Thomas. Both become harp arias without words while remaining very true to Donizetti’s original works. Virgilio Mortari’s two pieces feature more contemporary colours and chromatic melodies.

Léonardelli is an expressive, smart, devoted harp soloist. Both harp fans and those new to this instrument will enjoy her performances.

Listen to 'Serenata' Now in the Listening Room

01 Samuel AndreyevSamuel Andreyev – Iridescent Notation
Dina Pysarenko; Maren Schwier; Ukho Ensemble Kyiv; Luigi Gaggero
Kairos 0015002KAI (kairos-music.com)

In this latest release from Canadian composer Samuel Andreyev (b.1981), the virtuosic Ukrainian Ukho Ensemble Kyiv and guest soloists expertly deliver a collection of chamber works that highlight an artistic voice of obvious contemporary importance – a voice well beyond its years in maturity and control of expressive intent. 

This disc begins with the title-track work, a piece in seven movements for soprano and ensemble, with text by well-known English-Irish poet Tom Raworth. Here, the strong ensemble writing expertly punctuates elegant beacons that complement the soaring soprano part remarkably well. The extended techniques (unusual ways of playing the instruments) used throughout are decidedly modernist in their application, but the utility of these procedures is not used merely for surface effect: the resultant atmosphere heightens the quality of the text setting through highly creative musical pronouncements. A big standing ovation must go to soprano Maren Schwier for an incredible display of vocal acrobatics and control of colour, in what is quite a challenging work for the voice. 

With a collection of works that make use of many impressive jagged gestures that never seem to disappoint despite their frequency, there is a brilliant moment of contrast on the disc in a piece titled Nets Move Slowly, Yet. This piece is mysterious and elegant as it unfolds throughout pulsing hypnotic panoramas. Expectations are not redirected through punchy instrumental interjections, but through abrupt yet gentle shifts in mood – a quality that produces beauty through lucidity. 

With a collection of successful and sophisticated works, it is no wonder Andreyev continues to make his mark on the contemporary music world. We all look forward to more exciting music from this young talent.


02 Jon Siddall BelvedereBelvedere
Jon Siddall
Independent (jonsiddall.com)

Veteran Vancouver-area composer, guitarist, pianist and music producer Jon Siddall from his website: “I write slow music. With my new album Belvedere I’ve returned to that approach. The music develops, but slowly, or maybe hardly at all.” Siddall’s music could also be tagged minimalist or experimental ambient, genres that Siddall has deep roots in: his teachers have included leading maverick composers James Tenney (York University, Toronto), Terry Riley and Lou Harrison (California).

Siddall plays four of the Belvedere tracks on electric guitar, electric bass, mandolin and electric piano. The fifth track, Hello Snowflake, is played on the gamelan degung of West Java, Indonesia performed by the eight musicians of Gamelan Si Pawit, Siddall’s Vancouver group.

Degung, a kind of tuned percussion ensemble, also features a solo suling (bamboo ring flute). In this score however, Siddall chose not to use the suling and kendang set (barrel hand drums), but rather adds two kacapis (plucked West Javanese zithers). The result: exclusively struck and plucked sounds which naturally decay each at its own rate, evoking a non-pulsed, unhurried, contemplative mood.

Siddall’s rock guitar background shines through in Bliss Curve and in the spacious Belvedere for electric guitar trio. Clementine Mandala, for vintage Fender Rhodes (electric piano), is constructed of a long ascending melody performed at different speeds, superimposed in various ways, a texture common also in gamelan music. The composer writes evocatively, “Belvedere – is a vista, a beautiful view [to leisurely contemplate]. This album … invites immersion into that space. It’s music for dreamers, music to dream with, music with which to awaken calm.”

03 Quisin NachoffQuinsin Nachoff – Pivotal Arc
Nathalie Bonin; Molinari String Quartet; Quinsin Nachoff; JC Sanford
Whirlwind Recordings WR4761 (quinsin.com)

Composer and saxophonist Quinsin Nachoff has been merging formal composition and an expansive jazz vocabulary since conjoining a string quartet and a jazz group on his 2006 debut Magic Numbers. However, the blurring of traditionally distinct musical categories has reached its high point in the three compositions heard on Pivotal Arc

The CD’s major work is Nachoff’s Violin Concerto for soloist Nathalie Bonin, a 46-minute work in the traditional three-movement format. Fusing elements of Berg and Stravinsky and occasionally reminiscent of William Russo’s music, the work is written in a heterodox personal idiom for an ensemble that includes the Molinari String Quartet, seven brass and woodwinds, and a jazz-based rhythm section with bassist Mark Helias, drummer Satoshi Takeishi and vibraphonist Michael Davidson providing special propulsion. Conducted by JC Sanford, the performance brims with life, with Bonin bringing a special animation to its tango and Balkan-suffused elements and a cadenza that mingles composed and improvised materials.

Nachoff’s String Quartet is filled with dense harmonies and sudden explosions, eschewing any immediate references to the elements of jazz. Each of the four movements is based on a different lead voice, the device contributing to each segment’s distinctive quality. The concluding Pivotal Arc, more traditional in its harmonic language, is also the piece that brings improvisation to the fore, from Helias’ elegiac arco solo to Nachoff’s own tenor saxophone oration, pensive, expressionist, rhapsodic by turn, whether etched in abrasive split tones or soaring highs.

Listen to 'Quinsin Nachoff: Pivotal Arc' Now in the Listening Room

04 Walter KaufmannChamber Works by Walter Kaufmann
ARC Ensemble
Chandos CHAN 20170 (chandos.net)

This, the first-ever CD devoted to the music of Walter Kaufmann (1907-1984), is the latest in the Music in Exile series by Toronto’s ARC Ensemble (Artists of The Royal Conservatory), showcasing unheralded composers who fled Nazi Europe. In 1934, the Czech-born Kaufmann left Germany, becoming director of European music for Bombay’s All India Radio, composing, conducting, playing viola and piano in chamber ensembles and researching Indian, Nepalese, Bhutanese and Tibetan music. Moving to Canada in 1947, he served as the Winnipeg Symphony’s first music director (1948-1958) before teaching ethnomusicology at Indiana University.

Although Kaufmann composed prolifically throughout his career, including six symphonies and over 20 operas, each piece on this disc dates from his years in India. String Quartets Nos.7 and 11 receive visceral performances from the stellar foursome of violinists Erika Raum and Marie Bérard, violist Steven Dann and cellist Thomas Wiebe. Raum and pianist Kevin Ahfat collaborate in Violin Sonata No.2; clarinetist Joaquin Valdepeñas and Ahfat perform Sonatina No.12 (originally for violin and piano); violinist Jamie Kruspe and cellist Kimberly Jeong join the ensemble in Septet for three violins, viola, two cellos and piano.

These are substantial works, in which plaintive solemnity alternates with emphatic, syncopated dances, all heavily imbued with Indian modal, melodic and rhythmic sequences. I found this engrossing mix of European and Asian traditions richly rewarding and hope that this superb CD will inspire more recordings of Kaufmann’s music. I’d love to hear them.

07 Drew WhitingIn Lights Starkly Different
Drew Whiting
Innova Recordings innova 032 (innova.mu)

American saxophonist Drew Whiting’s wide-ranging musical expertise performing on soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, combined with his interest and dedication to contemporary electronic music, make his release featuring seven recent sax/electronics compositions memorable.

In Lights Starkly Different, composer Robin Julian Heifetz created loud and hyper-digital sounds using REplayPLAYer software and later processed with GRAM Tools. Chance and notation drive the piece as the tenor saxophone’s fast flourishes and tones ground the background electronic crashing, echoes and intense atonal effects. More unsettling sounds in Ed Martin’s Break, as Whiting plays baritone loud/soft contrasts, wailing atonalities and pitch slides against intense electronic washes and crashes. In Ötzi (named after a 5,000-year-old mummy) composer Alexis Bacon’s recorded rocks and metal noises make eclectic clicks, crashes and walking sounds against the tenor sax. 

For the Fallen, by Judith Shatin, has its slower, lyrical, emotional soprano sax lines lock into electronics created from recordings of Italy’s Capana dei Caduti (Bell for the Fallen). Love the multiple contrapuntal saxophone lines in John Mayrose’s Random Access, as Mayrose uses live electronics to layer Whiting’s alto sax (stored in RAM) for effects. In Jeff Herriott’s As brightness is smeared into memory, the reflective romantic soprano sax part is closely connected to electronic washes. Nathan Edwards’ Saudade Study, with tonal ambient tenor sax and delay/reverb effects is sad, thought-provoking emotional moods music.

This is contemporary music at its best as Whiting breathes and plays saxophone in contrasting intensities and styles with diverse electronics effects.

08 Amanda GookinForward Music Project 1.0
Amanda Gookin
Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0135 (brightshiny.ninja)

It is the highest level of artistry that can realize a message, a story or an emotion while seeming to have not performed it at all. This was my takeaway from my introduction to cellist Amanda Gookin. 

Forward Music Project 1.0 is a collection of seven pieces for solo cello and electronics ranging in length from five to 12 minutes by seven culturally diverse women composers. I rarely found myself thinking of the stunning level of execution; I was so immersed in the inspired delivery of these seven miniature works of art. Beginning with Natalie Joachim’s Dam mwen yo, a picturesque blending of the voices of Haitian women lovingly embraced with cello, to the dynamic and powerfully joyous final track of Jessica Meyers’s Swerve, each work outlines themes of the cross-cultural injustice and suffering of women. From one track to the next I was moved by the stunning technique that beautifully unified the collection. Gookin keeps the unique and accessible collaboration on message by including the voices of the composers themselves, available as short descriptive introductions in their own voices on YouTube, thus keeping this album refreshingly free of ego. But the music itself warrants attention regardless of the storytelling. 

“For mothers. For sisterhood. For brave storytellers and quiet listeners. I sing, I gasp, I fight, I breathe life into the work of these fearless artists. I founded Forward Music Project for you. And you are not alone.“

I was woefully ignorant of Amanda Gookin before this inspired listen, but I have surely become among her greatest fans. A significant and most welcome collaboration for the times. 

09 Mark AbelMark Abel – The Cave of Wondrous Voice
David Shifrin; Fred Sherry; Hila Plitmann; Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker; Dominic Cheli; Carol Rosenberger; Sarah Beck
Delos DE 3570 (naxosdirect.com)

California-based composer Mark Abel explains in the liner notes that his father was a “devotee” of such classical chamber music composers as Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven and Dvořák, which clearly influenced his emotionally driven compositions grounded in modern and classical styles.

Abel is renowned for his vocal works. His exciting song cycle Four Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva features four Russian poems translated to English for the first time by Alyssa Dinega Gilliespie. Soprano Hila Plitmann sings with dramatic clarity, musicality, tuning and high pitches. Carol Rosenberger (piano) and Sarah Beck (English horn) support with technical/musical control as the words and music are one.

Diverse tonal and stylistic storytelling is featured in Abel’s chamber works. Intuition’s Dance features Rosenberger and clarinetist David Shifrin playing contrasting happy bouncy faster, and slower spooky lyrical sections. Cellist Fred Sherry joins them in the three-movement Clarinet Trio in which they each are almost soloists, especially in Taking Flight, with its energetic pulsing opening, and upbeat jazz-flavoured closing. 

Another wordless musical story suggesting “the subconscious mind’s journey through the course of the day” is The Elastic Hours, performed by violinist Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker and pianist Dominic Cheli. What Friday Brought opens with a positive end-of-the-work-week mood until stuff happens with moody tremolos, and held notes. Saturday’s Circumference is a driving tonal duet featuring intermittent happy toe-tapping and slower reflective sections.

Abel is a compositional master of intriguing contemporary music.

01 Songs of TalesLife is a Gong Show
Songs of Tales
Roots2boot Recordings (roots2boot.com)

A bewitching collaboration born from the minds of four talented jazz musicians from across Canada, this debut CD is a simple yet complex musical hodgepodge of eclectic rhythms and meandering melodies brought together by great musicianship. Saxophonist and keyboardist Petr Cancura; Jean Martin on drums, vibraphone and electronics; Jesse Zubot on violin, bass, congas and synths; and Gordon Grdina on oud, guitars and bass, together produce a very apparent likeminded flow of creativity and expression. What really makes this album stand out is the instrumentation featuring the pairing of saxophone and violin that often play main melodic strains together; the tracks take on a unique modernistic quality yet still with a touch of authenticity. Throw the electronics into the mix and you have a truly pleasurable avant-jazz-pop-jazz album. 

The record starts off with a picturesque opening track, Traure, which calls to mind a scene from a western with a classic cowboy staredown which reflects the fact that partial inspiration for this album is taken from film music. Burning Bright takes on another tone altogether, leaning more towards jazz with rhythmic complexity, sax and vibraphone melody and a hint of uncertainty stirred in. The album ends with Mary Go Round, a track that conjures up the image of a vast expanse, a melancholic and haunting violin and acoustic guitar theme bringing the scenic musical journey to a close. A truly interesting and inspiring album.

02 Aimee Jo BenoitBorjoner
Aimee-Jo Benoit and Trio Velocity
Independent (aimeejobenoit.com)

Famed vocalist Aimee-Jo Benoit’s newest release featuring Trio Velocity can be described as “an album of loosely arranged… tunes closest to the heart of the [artist’s] musical journey.” The tracks are a collection of songs written by renowned musicians from various corners of the musical universe, ranging from Kurt Cobain to Paul McCartney and Burt Bacharach. Benoit’s unique soft-yet-defined timbre combined with instrumentation featuring upright bass, drums and piano enables these arrangements to have an interesting and refreshing twist. Each track has its own story to tell and the vocalist herself expresses her love of storytelling by “using a variety of vocal techniques to convey the narrative inherent in [each] song.” 

Benoit’s interpretation of Cobain’s All Apologies stands out for highlighting the main recognizable riff while replacing the melancholic tone of the original song with a much more positive one through the use of Sheldon Zandboer’s soft and melodic piano theme. This Flight Tonight is an energetic and pleasing interpretation of Joni Mitchell’s classic tune carried forward by Simon Fisk on bass and Robin Tufts on drums, within which you can hear hints of Mitchell’s timbre peeking through in Benoit’s vocal styling while she still makes the tune completely her own. For those in search of a refreshing take on modern classics with just the right amount of character mixed in, this album is a perfect listen.

Listen to 'Borjoner' Now in the Listening Room

03 Grant StewartRise and Shine
Grant Stewart Quartet
Cellar Music CM110419 (cellarlive.com)

A discussion I frequently have with fellow jazz musicians regards what percentage of a musician’s time is best allocated towards paying homage to the tradition, versus innovating. I’m generally of the camp that stresses innovation and modernity, but I have much respect for those who masterfully devote themselves to keeping a more classic style of improvised music alive, with the caveat that this is executed in the most genuine and immaculate way possible. 

What could be a better way to accomplish this goal, than to record at the Mecca-esque Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey locale that has accommodated countless sessions for Prestige, Blue Note, Impulse and CTI, among other record labels? Jazz is a style of music that frequently negates the technicalities of where it’s recorded (“it’s all about the notes, man!”) but a listener would be hard pressed not to notice the unique sound Rudy Van Gelder’s studio imparts, even today, four years after the late engineer’s passing. The thought crossed my mind how perfectly both Grant Stewart’s musicianship and the aforementioned studio fit the mandate of Cellar Music – “timeless, swinging, heartfelt, and resonant.” 

Returning to my earlier musings on tradition versus innovation, it strikes me that there is a certain level of commitment necessary to make a recording in 2020 that harkens back to the jazz of the 50s and 60s sound “timeless.” Grant Stewart, along with his stellar band and excellently balanced repertoire, demonstrate this commitment to its fullest extent, making Rise and Shine a treat to listen to. 

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